Scotland may have been persuaded to stick with the UK, but the unity that brought Labour, the Conservatives and the Lib Dems together looks set to unravel quickly.
‘Better Together’ was how the campaign to keep Scotland within the Union described itself and now, having seen Scotland very clearly reject the premise of independence, it is beholden upon all sides to show that a strong Scotland with enhanced powers for Holyrood really is better within the UK.
Today’s response from the prime minister to the results which streamed in overnight, however, might just have stoked the fires of nationalism north of the border for a generation.
Just days before the polls opened, Messers Cameron, Clegg and Miliband made a solemn vow that should Scotland vote to reject independence it could look forward to gaining new powers for the Scottish parliament and government whilst retaining the controversial Barnett Formula as the mechanism for determining funding across all regions of the UK.
The timetable to go with it was equally ambitious.
As Gordon Brown outlined the day after Westminster was rocked by the poll that put the Yes campaign in the lead, the promise made to the people of Scotland is for draft legislation to be published on further powers by January with a second reading to be held by 27 March next year.
In his response, Alex Salmond has this morning made clear that he will hold the feet of the unionist parties to the fire and keep them to their word. To do otherwise would be to disregard the promise that could have prevented Scotland voting yes last night.
Faced with such a tight timetable, however, David Cameron’s announcement that measures to address the West Lothian question, proposing some form of ‘English Votes for English Laws’, will be introduced in tandem with the devolution plans for Scotland raises a serious question of deliverability.
Whilst both parties in the UK government may have signed up to the plan in principle, the political reality is that Labour will have substantial problems.
Agreeing to the plans, however sketchy they might be at the moment, risks the party being elected to form a UK government whilst being unable to govern England properly. It really would be in office but not in power.
So what to do?
The scenarios are various:
- Labour takes the hit, supports the proposals and uses this as an opportunity to radically transform itself and improve its appeal in all corners of the country.
- David Cameron opts to de-couple the West Lothian Question from the Scottish devolution plans in the knowledge that seeking solutions to both in the same time frame in simply unrealistic. This would weaken Cameron’s standing in England and hand a victory to UKIP.
- The government proceeds regardless with plans for English Votes for English laws in the teeth of opposition from Labour, risking the prospect of being unable to deliver further powers for Holyrood in the time frame promised, stoking the fires of nationalism in Scotland for a generation.
At a time when statesmanship was required from the prime minister, he failed to deliver, seeking to call Ed Miliband’s bluff in a game of English politics that shows his mind has moved from the fight with Alex Salmond to the battle with Nigel Farage.
Scotland may have been persuaded to stick with the UK, but the unity that brought Labour, the Conservatives and the Lib Dems together looks set to unravel quickly. A pandora’s box has been opened with who knows what consequences.
Ed Jacobs is a Left Foot Forward contributing editor
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